Jessie Diggins and Sadie Bjornsen leap onto the podium after finishing third in the team sprint at the 2017 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships. (Andrew Shinn)
Scandinavian countries, Germany, Italy, and Russia dominated women’s cross-country competitions for 60 years, but that began to change in 2012 with the breakout of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Team.
Suddenly, members were reaching the podium in this power endurance sport of individual sprints, team sprints, distance races (skiathalon, 10km freestyle, 30km classic) and relay. It started with a podium first for an American team with a third place in a 4 x 5km relay (four women each race 5 km) in November 2012.
Higher placements and podiums in World Cups and World Championships followed for the team as individuals and in team events, leading to eight medals at three world championships over the past five years.
Now the U.S. women who have placed fourth in the last three World Championships in relay are contenders for an Olympic medal in the 4x5k relay at the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games, and there are expectations for strong showings in other events like the team sprint, notes U.S. Ski & Snowboard Cross-Country Press Officer Reese Brown.
So how did they get there?
As a senior contributor to the U.S. Olympic Committee’s website TeamUSA.org and a former contributor to Ski Racing Magazine, Peggy Shinn witnessed the rise of the women’s team and was intrigued by what was behind their success.
The result is “World Class, the Making of the U.S. Women’s Cross-Country Ski Team,” a 248-page book that details unique teamwork and how a team leader, a coach, mutual respect and spirit combine to make it happen.
Shinn got to know the women by attending a 2016 summer training camp in Alaska, visiting them in Park City, and attending 2017 events in Finland. She also interviewed coaches, administrators, and family members who gave further insights as to the history of the team and the dedication of the athletes.
She was most impressed by how the team coalesced to become serious contenders. “Kikkan [Randolph, an Olympian and World Cup competitor] didn’t go off and train on her own with her own coach as elite athletes often do when they start winning,” Shinn told SnoCountry.com. Rather, she stayed with her team and served as inspiration to younger members and as a team cheerleader. Shinn credits that dedication to the team and the personal connections Randall engendered as positives that “lifted up the entire team.”
An interesting historical perspective on cross-country helps to explain why other countries once dominated women’s events as does a recounting of the obstacles American women have had to overcome, including less-than-stellar past support of the team. The assignment of their own women’s coach Matt Whitcomb furthers the team’s accomplishments through his ability to connect with each woman and complements Randall’s ability to inspire teammates.
In “World Class,” you will meet many of the eleven women on this year’s U.S. Olympic cross-country team, including: Jessie Diggins (Minn.), Sadie Bjornsen (Wash.), Sophie Caldwell (Vt.), Liz Stephen (Vt.), Ida Sargent (Vt.) Rosie Brennan (Utah), and Randall (Alaska).
Diggins is currently third in FIS World Cup overall rankings with Bjornsen seventh. Caldwell is third in the FIS World Cup sprint rankings and Diggins sixth. Diggins stands fifth in distance with Bjornsen 11th.
This is Randall’s fifth winter Olympics, the most ever for a U.S. cross-country skier. “I am especially excited about this team going into 2018 as the strongest cross-country contingent I’ve ever been a part of," she said.
Coaches, competitors, female athletes in general, and parents of competitors will find this a good read as will anyone interested in learning more about what it takes to get to the Olympics, or why colorful socks matter.
The paperback with 38 color photographs can be ordered online or through your favorite bookstore ($19.95; E-book, $14.99).